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Horror stories from agency clients

Horror stories from agency clients Lucia Davis

Back in November, I aired the client woes of a few anonymous agency people, in the spirit of unity -- who doesn't have a story about a jerk they'd like to tell? In this article, the clients are the ones doing the talking.

In order to cull the best of the worst, I am still keeping my sources secret. I also decided to keep the agency names out of it, even if they deserve to be called out. They know who they are.

I've organized the stories into five "commandments" of good agency behavior. Follow these and you should be in the clear. If you don't, you might end up here in the near future. You've been warned!

If clients ask for apples, don't give them oranges

Senior manager at a personal publishing service
My company was working with a large, well-known digital agency. Because of the agency's size and prestige, we were surprised to have so many juvenile issues. We shared our metrics with them multiple times, explaining that our CPA was a specific cost per particular type of customer. At least six times through the course of launching our campaigns, they reported on their version of CPA, which was totally unrelated. We'd get on our call, and they'd be so excited to tell us how many "actions" they drove. For six consecutive weeks, we'd asked "What is your version of an 'action'?" Each and every week, they'd give the wrong answer and we'd have to tell them the purpose of our campaigns. Moral of the story, learn the clients business, and don't pass the KPIs from the account director to the account coordinator without giving all of the details!

Backing your clients into a corner is not a strategy

Digital and social leader at a national drug retailing chain
The motto of this well-known agency might as well have been "Always keep ideas big and far enough away that they couldn't be killed by the client." The company I worked for had already bought airtime during the Academy Awards to run a brand new campaign. The product was popcorn -- with family TV-watching moments like the Oscars, this media strategy made sense. However, the creative spoke for itself: The agency presented the "final" spot to the CEO, head of marketing, and other senior executives days before Oscars. The team was very disappointed -- believing the spot was a rough cut at best -- and couldn't believe it was being shown as final. Everyone knew it was bad, but we had no choice but to run it because the airtime had been bought. The cherry on top was that the agency also threatened to walk if my company didn't run the spot.

Sugar coating is not a solution

Senior manager at a personal publishing service
We had worked with this specific agency for years and it knew our business well. Each week we'd get on our status call to go over results of all of our campaigns. No matter what the results, they were always good. Even if the campaign was tanking, the agency rep would cheerily explain why it wasn't as bad as some others he'd seen, or why it was not really bad because his buddy on the third floor really liked it. Face it, when something is bad, it's bad. Sometimes agencies think everything has to be bright and shiny, and it just doesn't.

Know thy client

Digital and social leader at a national drug retailing chain
I was working at an American food packaging company and sat in during a pitch from a big-name agency. The agency showed Nike example after Nike example; showcasing a campaign it had done in Times Square. Finally, our senior director of marketing had enough and asked, "What does this have to do with selling pot pies?" The agency folks were speechless. Good example of an agency not understanding the client it was pitching.

Learn to listen

Vice president of marketing at a life insurance company
We were working with a search agency that had been recommended. We made our metrics policy very clear -- we had a good meeting ahead of time, phone conferences, etc. -- and told them, "Here are what our allowables are. Our metrics are very tight, we watch them very closely. Everything that we measure is direct response metrics. It's not brand -- we're not doing brand studies here --it's strictly direct response metrics. How many leads to we generate, what is the effective cost, what are those conversions all the way down the sales funnel to a paid policy." After the first couple of months, we looked at the reports --- which were always late -- and found they were never correct, the agency was always having to go back and edit them several times, and the reporting wasn't that special anyway. It didn't give us good information.

A few months in, we looked at the report and saw that half of our budget was spent on a keyword that was delivering at an acquisition cost three-times more than my allowable.  So I called them up and said, "What are you doing? Why would you spend all this money on a keyword so out of whack from our deliverables?" The response the agency rep gave was, "But you're getting so much exposure in your target audience." It was like, "Do you know what our company does? Do you know what we're looking for?" The agency was talking brand metrics and we were talking direct response. In other words, the agency rep hadn't listened to us at all.

Lucia Davis is associate editor at iMedia Connection.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Slideshow "Apple and orange isolated" image, "Organized crime" image, "Heap of sugar and a spoon" image, "Portrait of young business woman in despair" image, "Group of disoriented business people" image, and "Frustrated Girl" image via Shutterstock.

Cover art "Frustrated businessman" image, "Close up of fire and flames" image and "Cracked wall texture" image via Shutterstock.

Lucia Davis is a journalist, social media consultant and founder of The Art Bus Project. Previously, she was director of content at Obviously Social. Prior to that position, she served as community editor at PR News after working as...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Lucia Davis

2012, March 02

I feel like a piece titled "Fustercluck 2012: Agency-client relationships from hell" would do really well. Now just have to get our Editor-in-Chief to sign off on it...

Commenter: Craig Francis

2012, March 02

@ Lucia Davis - thanks for these - aside from being entertaining, they are takeaway reminders!

I take issue with the Academy Awards popcorn example. How did the popcorn company get itself into a position of having to accept creative or the agency will 'walk' -- is there no methodology in their agreement? My agency schedules previews, feedback, and final draft for approval.

So your firm has bought air time on one of the most expensive dates of the year -- why do you not demand a rough cut WEEKS in advance? Why did the marketing dept in the company allow that the "agency presented the "final" spot to the CEO, head of marketing, and other senior executives days before Oscars"? That's irresponsible within their own positions, not to know what they're running for their company. Does the person telling the story realize video can be re-edited? Why are fixes not demanded overtime in those last "days"? Most agencies I know have turned around a campaign within days at some time or another.

This story seems fishy; or at best, the blind leading the blind. Lucia, maybe it's an example of a horrible agency AND a horrible client? A fustercluck.